THE FINAL whistle at Nene Park was greeted, appropriately, with cheers all around the ground. But had they known better, the good folk of Irthlingborough, Rushden and other assorted towns of the Northamptonshire shoe-broker belt that is home to the Vauxhall Conference aristocrats might have been excused for feeling a little let down.
Brian Talbot, Rushden's manager, was certainly right to claim afterwards he had created a "good little side". It was one that made a depleted Premiership team struggle all the way to avoid another famous chapter being written in the Leeds United book of FA Cup calamities. Indeed, had Adrian Foster, Rushden's top scorer, taken his headed chance in the first minute it might well have happened.
As it was, when Clyde Wijnhard hit the post for Leeds seven minutes later it seemed David O'Leary's side would assert themselves. The Australian Harry Kewell was in lively mood and briefly the non-Leaguers were hanging on desperately. Their former Luton Town goalkeeper, Ian Feuer, just about coped with a fierce drive from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Tim Wooding blocked another from Wijnhard and Kewell himself headed just over.
But in the last 10 minutes of the first half Rushden began to pick holes in Leeds' makeshift defence. There were excellent chances for Miguel de Souza, Carl Heggs and, finally, Foster again from a free-kick following Jonathon Woodgate's 43rd-minute foul on De Souza that earned the Leeds defender his first yellow card of the match.
There were no such openings for either side in the second half, despite a second booking for Woodgate that reduced Leeds to 10 men for the last 15 minutes. Rushden gave it all they had, but eventually it was a moot point as to which side would be most grateful for a draw: the 10 men of Premiership Leeds, or a non-League side with a name more like an amalgamation between two local nightclubs than two local football clubs.
It would be wrong to assume this was a "romantic" occasion. There were goose- bumps, but only thanks to the freezing cold after the sun had dipped down behind the end of the smartly-appointed ground occupied by the home fans. There were no brickies, or even bank clerks, among the highly-paid Rushden ranks, no supporters climbing nearby trees to watch footballing history in the making, and the very opulence of the surroundings made it hard to buy into the traditional non-League cup lore.
In normal circumstances, a draw might be seen as the ideal result for the minnows - a bumper pay-day for the replay at Elland Road, a great night out for the supporters and players, and everyone happy. But thanks to the chairman, Max Griggs, and his Doctor Marten boots, Rushden & Diamonds have no need for an extra half a million or so. They are already wealthier than most clubs in the Nationwide League they confidently expect to be joining, if not this year then next, and they make no secret of their ultimate designs on the Premiership itself, citing Wimbledon as their role models.
Oddly enough, the rise and rise of Wimbledon began with a replayed FA Cup tie against Leeds United, when the Dons were still in the Southern League. Wimbledon eventually lost to Leeds, but reached the Premiership a few years later. The same fate might await Rushden & Diamonds, but surely there can only be one Wimbledon - please?
Rushden & Diamonds (4-4-2): Feuer; Wooding, Bradshaw, Rodwell, Underwood; Hamsher, McElhatton, Butterworth, Heggs; Foster, De Souza. Substitutes not used: Brady, Whyte, Wilson, Cooper, Corry (gk).
Leeds United (4-4-2): Martyn; Woodgate, Haaland, Harte, Granville; Halle, Bowyer, Hopkin, Kewell; Wijnhard (Smith, 67), Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Ribeiro, Jackson, McPhail, Robinson (gk).
Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).
Sending-off: Leeds: Woodgate. Bookings: Rushden: Butterworth, Foster. Leeds: Woodgate (2).
Man of the Match: Kewell.
Attendance: 6,431.Reuse content